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Woodford Times - Peoria, IL
  • Bears players visit Washington students, help with tornado recovery

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  • WASHINGTON — The Monsters of the Midway stood in shock Wednesday as they took in the devastation left behind by the monster that had raked through Dorchester Court and its surrounding streets.
    The Chicago Bears, with 14 players and some team staff in tow, made a surprise visit to students at Washington Community High School, spoke privately with the Panthers football team, had lunch with the students, then walked the tornado-ravaged Washington neighborhoods.
    "It's very real when you're standing here right in it," said Bears corner Sherrick McManis, the former Richwoods High School star. "Being so close to home, and actually being here, you not only see it, you feel it. Everything is destroyed.
    "But there's Cody, standing there, smile on his face, getting to work. It inspires us to see these people out here."
    Cody Brashers, 19, was working a pile of debris with a garden rake when McManis walked up to chat with him. They stood in a foggy mist, with an American flag in the background between them, presiding over a foundation on which no house remained.
    "Been out here a week now, little bit at a time, doing what I can," Brashers said. "I think these guys are a great example being out here, picking up our spirits."
    McManis took off his Bears wristband, signed it, and handed it over to Brashers, who immediately put it on. Then, back to work.
    The Bears joined them, picking through debris, helping clear one of the lots on the Dorchester cul-de-sac.
    Kicker Robbie Gould visited with residents, standing around a wood-carved bear with the NFL team's name on it, resting on the street.
    Defensive tackle Landon Cohen held a newborn, and stole some kisses. Defensive tackle Christian Tupou, tight end Dante Rosario, linebacker James Anderson, defensive end David Bass and linebacker Blake Costanzo all waded in to supply the heavy lifting in a community that will need help for a long time.
    "When we first came into the neighborhood, you see pieces missing from houses here, houses there," Rosario said. "You keep going, and it gets worse. And worse. And it keeps going, seems like forever. I've never been through a disaster. We eventually reached a place here where there is nothing left. Nothing. And nothing can prepare you for that."
    The NFL team arrived at the high school about 10 a.m. and met with the Washington Panthers football team that battled, but fell, in the IHSA semifinals on Nov. 23, just days after the EF-4 tornado struck the town, damaging or destroying more than 1,000 homes.
    "We didn't know they were coming," said Panthers senior linebacker Chris Friend. "They told us we inspired them. That was incredible to hear.
    "I talked to Costanzo for a while. He told me he didn't go to an NCAA Division I program, he went to (Lafayette), and he said you can make it to the NFL that way. I'm thinking about playing at a small school, so that meant a lot to me. He's proof it can be done."
    Page 2 of 2 - The Bears, dressed in orange T-shirts that read "Washington Panther" on them, fanned out around the school cafeteria and shared chicken-fried steak and meatloaf with the students.
    "The football team here inspired a community," Gould said, presiding over a long line of autographs and picture-seekers. "As professional players, we were amazed to see those kids go through what they did and then play a playoff football game.
    "That tornado, they went through a horrific thing that lasted 10 minutes, but the impact on them and on the community will last a lifetime."
    Washington student Greg Nofsinger, in line for an autograph from Gould, got a call on his cellphone from his father, Lance. He handed the phone to Gould, who surprised Nofsinger's father with a brief chat.
    "That," said the younger Nofsinger, "was just awesome."
    Rosario was surrounded by students in the middle of the room, where he took pictures, signed homework, shirts, and even some footballs.
    "We thanked the Panthers team for the chance to come here and talk to them," Rosario said. "The example they set for the school and the community is tremendous. I can't imagine what it takes to go through what they did and then go play a football game, knowing the community is riding on you. They deserve enormous respect for that.
    "They turned tragedy into strength."
    Dave Eminian covers the Rivermen for the Journal Star. Reach him at 686-3206 or deminian@pjstar.com. Follow him on Twitter @icetimecleve.

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